Archive for category: PhD Work

St. Gregory the Great and the Pastor-Theologian | “The care of souls is the art of arts”

12 Aug Andrew Byers
August 12, 2013

I was scanning the patristics section in my college library when I found this:

Gregory the Great (540–604) was one of the most influential popes in the history of the church. One of his legacies is The Book of Pastoral Rule (henceforth, “PR” [1]).

Pastoring is an ancient craft, one Gregory calls (borrowing from Gregory Nazianzus [2]) “the art of arts.” I grabbed the book off the shelf for holiday reading material.

What intrigued me is the pastoral crisis Gregory was writing into. As the translator George Demacopoulos explains in his introduction to PR, an interesting phenomenon took place after Constantine’s conversion. As the Roman populace suddenly began flooding into the church en masse, many Christians believed the collective spiritual maturity became increasingly more shallow. Living out the faith seemed more authentic back in the pre-Constantine days, when being a Christian was less popular and even socially quite challenging. So many of the more ‘serious’ Christians made an exodus from the congregations of the masses to join monastic communities and embrace a more ascetic life.

Gregory, however, was calling these ascetics back to the churches to become pastors.

Well… not necessarily all of them. He highly valued asceticism and the monastic life; yet he knew that many Christians gifted for pastoral ministry were fleeing the parish to the monastery, so to speak.

What St. Gregory had found in his own life and throughout the wider body of Christ is that the attraction of a more spiritual and studious life can actually deplete the church of her best guides and pastors.

This temptation is very real today. For some of us, the academic life seems to afford a contemplative vocation of rigorous theological and biblical study. Oddly, a love for God’s words can actually become the means by which gifted ministers leave the parish and the pulpit. (Though let us note that many an academic will say that such a contemplative existence is a gross illusion!).

I leave you with the challenge of St. Gregory’s own words:

For there are several who possess incredible virtues and who are exalted by great talents for training others; men who are spotless in the pursuit of chastity, stout in the vigor of fasting, satiated in the feasts of doctrine, humble in the long-suffering of patience, erect in the fortitude of authority, tender in the grace of kindness, and strict in the severity of judgment. To be certain, if they refuse to accept a position of spiritual leadership when they are called, they forfeit the majority of their gifts—gifts which they received not for themselves only, but also for others. When these men contemplate their own spiritual advantages and do not consider anyone else, they lose these good because they desire to keep them to themselves. Certainly, the Truth [Jesus] spoke of this to the disciples: “A city set upon a mountain cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a candle and place it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick so that it may shine for everyone who is in the house” [Mt 5:14–15]. Hence, he said to Peter: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And when Simon responded at once that he loved him, he said, “If you love me, feed my sheep” [Jn 21:15–17]. If therefore, the care of feeding is a testament to loving, then he who abounds in virtues but refuses to feed the flock of God is found guilty of having no love for the supreme Shepherd….
…And so there are those, as we have said, who are enriched by many gifts; and because they prefer contemplative study, they decline to make themselves useful by preaching to their neighbors, and preferring the mystery of stillness they take refuge in the solitude of [spiritual] investigations
. If they are judged strictly by their conduct, they are undoubtedly guilty for the proportion of their abilities that they applied to public service. For indeed, what is the disposition of mind when one could be distinguished by assisting his neighbors but prefers his own [stillness] to the assistance of others, when, in fact, the only-begotten of the supreme Father came forth from the bosom of the Father into our midst so that he might benefit the many? [PR, I.5]

[1] St Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule (tr. George Demacopoulos; Popular Patristics Series 34; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007).

[2] Gregory the Theologian, Apology for his Flight to Pontus, Or 2.

Pastor-Theologian: Will the Job Market Drive PhD Graduates into the Pulpit?

16 Apr Andrew Byers
April 16, 2013

While brewing a second cup of coffee to keep alert in my Greek readings this morning, I found Chris Spinks’ post “Avoid a PhD?” His reflections were stimulated by Anthony LeDonne’s most recent attempt to dissuade prospective PhD candidates from pursuing their vocational dreams (LeDonne offers such discouragement on a monthly basis).

The gist of the matter is that those of us in the throes of doctoral work are loading ourselves with ungodly gobs of debt to be qualified for jobs that simply do not exist. Universities are raising tuition and increasing enrollment, but theology and religious studies professors are among the least paid across all disciplines. More and more academic institutions are taking advantage of “adjunct” professors who teach courses for very modest stipends and for whom the institutions provide nothing in terms of healthcare or other benefits.

Spinks (aptly) summarizes the advice of one commenter on LeDonne’s post in this way: “If you are not independently wealthy, or if you don’t have the pedigree to get an advanced degree in the humanities paid for, then please leave these degrees to those who can afford them.” But Spinks is concerned about the fallout, that “advanced degrees in the humanities become attainable only by the privileged.” He goes on to suggest that “if these less fortunate folks avoid all of this [financial/vocational] mess (not an unwise decision, I’ll grant), we will end up with privileged people educating other privileged people. That would be a shame.”

I am certainly among the (partially insane) unprivileged who are taking on hordes of debt to study the Bible at the doctoral level (though, admittedly, just the fact that I qualify for a student loan plan and can even dream about a PhD evidences a hefty degree of privilege). To be honest, I would issue the same advice as LeDonne, while hoping with Spinks that some less-than-privileged folks will end up teaching Scripture and theology in our seminaries and Religion Departments. I could never recommend this vocational path to anyone without massive financial backing—my regrets are rather acute right now; but again, theology should not be the domain only of the financially backed.

Though I see no solution to the debt-problem, here is one silver lining that may well be at play: not finding a job in the academy, some Christians may be redirected from the academic lectern to the ecclesial pulpit. Perhaps the job market and the wider culture’s disinterest in theology will have the effect of proliferating pastor-theologians throughout the church.

Obviously there are drawbacks here. For one, ministry is a calling and the pastoral office is not well-served if filled by a disgruntled academic whose dreams in the academy have been dashed by an economic recession. Secondly, the sort of training one gets as a PhD candidate is not necessarily conducive for promoting the sort of theological and biblical acuity required in ministerial labors.

But “calling” is often a matter of redirection, isn’t it? What some people might retrospectively call “divine calling,” might be understood at first as a “divine cornering or redirecting!” Saul of Tarsus, for instance, never envisioned how God would put his intensive academic training to use. His vocation as an apostle arose out of the ashes of a Christ-exploded vocational dream.

As for the sort of academic training involved in the PhD… well, a lot of it is simply unhelpful in a church context, sadly. But the greatest benefit of doctoral work in theology and Bible may well be the skill of reading hard texts and the discipline of thinking about them with nuance and care. And we could certainly use the fruit of those skills and disciplines in our pulpits today.

Theoretically, Christians working on PhDs are already plying their craft to the glory of God and for the benefit of the church. When the doors of the ivory towers are barred shut during the job hunt, will they turn to pulpits and pews?

That begs another question: will the pews and chapel doors be open to academically trained theologians and Bible scholars?




New Testament Studies at Durham… New Strengths

10 Oct Andrew Byers
October 10, 2012

In spite of the horrific costs of postgraduate study in the UK, I am so pleased that Durham is where I have ended up.  I am biased, of course.  But bias might actually be a criterion for truthfulness—sometimes the only accurate portrayals are not the “objective” views from outsiders, but the subjective view from insiders.

(On that statement one could wax on and on with an exciting theology of hermeneutics, by the way— biased insiders are, for the most part, the “implied readers” of Scripture).

The strengths of Durham’s Dept. of Theology are widely recognized.  From an insider’s perspective, there are some less known elements at play that increase my thankfulness for being here.

For one, there is a sincere and energetic agenda of strengthening the academic skills of us postgrads.  Some serious thinking and evaluation is at work as faculty members wonder how they can make us better scholars and address our potential weaknesses.  This agenda is not enacted in a heavy-handed way.  Instead, the faculty are sacrificially making themselves more available in an array of opportunities which are simply there should we choose to take advantage of the offerings.

Here are examples.  Our NT Seminar meets not fortnightly (every other week) like most in the UK, but weekly.  And Prof. Francis Watson (the seminar convener and my supervisor) has added a skills development dimension.  Every other week we have paper presentations (the standard fare of postgraduate seminars in the UK), but on the alternative weeks there are training sessions in reading primary texts, open only to postgrads and faculty.  This means that every other week we NT doctoral and masters students are reading ancient texts with expert ancient-text-readers.  For this term (Michaelmas), our training sessions are dedicated to textual criticism.  In effect, we will have experienced something akin to a doctoral level seminar on text-critical reading of the Greek New Testament.

In addition to the NT seminar, an impressive host of language reading groups are on offer.  Our faculty have quite a breadth in linguistic competencies, and they are making themselves available so that we can choose to meet them in small groups to read Hebrew, Aramaic, Coptic, Greek, French, etc.

Also worth mentioning is the new Integrated PhD program, just initiated.  The standard US PhD program is 4-5 years with heavy emphases on doctoral level coursework and language study built into them.  The 3-year UK program, on the other hand, expects the competencies gained from language study and coursework to be developed before entering doctoral level research.

Times are changing, so that expectation has proven to be a bit too optimistic.  Many of us begin with an array of linguistic and research weaknesses, a situation that has at times drawn criticism from Americans who have managed to get one of the rare PhD slots in the elite US schools.  Durham is addressing these perceived weaknesses with vigor.  And this new integrated PhD program (4 years) allows an extra year of work on the front end of doctoral research so that these potential areas of scholarly weakness can be mitigated.

Below is the schedule for this term’s NT Seminar.  I’m glad I have a seat at the conference table.


8 October | Prof Walter Moberly, “Biblical Hermeneutics and Ecclesial Responsibility”

*15 October | Prof Francis Watson, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (1): Matthew [selected passages]”

22 October | Dr Rainer Hirsch-Luipold (University of Berne), “John and the Religious Philosophy of his Time”

23 October | Dr Rainer Hirsch-Luipold, “Plutarch’s Religious Philosophy and the New Testament” (DCC Seminar Room, 1.30-3.00)

*29 October | Prof John Barclay, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (2) Luke”

5 November | Dr Helen Bond (University of Edinburgh), “Dating the Death of Jesus: Memory and the Religious Imagination”

*12 November Dr Lutz Doering, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (3): John”

19 November | NO SEMINAR

26 November | tba

*3 December | Dr Jane Heath, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (4): Acts”

10 December | Prof Larry Hurtado (University of Edinburgh), “Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins”

Imagination & Biblical Scholarship

21 Sep Andrew Byers
September 21, 2012

Since living in England, my family and I have had our imaginative capacities expanded when it comes to reflecting on history.  Bounding on castle grounds and clambering hillsides once ascended by Viking invaders or defended from Picts by Roman soliders… these multi-sensory experiences provide a landscape / cityscape / castle-scape for imagining the historical events that transpired so long ago.

Using the  imagination might seem too much like a flight of fancy when it comes to so sophisticated a discipline as biblical scholarship.  But in fact, we are always using our imaginations.  The shreds of papyrus picked up in the sands, the torn pages of faded codices, the cracked sculptures discovered under the earth in modern day Turkey, the crumbling mortar in the remaining temples—these are textual and material artifacts by which we imaginatively construct the world of the Old and New Testaments.

Hadrian’s Wall was built by the Romans when the church was still young and just beginning to flourish in the Empire.  My kids run alongside it sometimes, wielding plastic versions of swords or shields fashioned from the prototypes of actual weapons pulled out of bogs or found corroding in the dirt.  Those dear little children are role-playing, vividly spying their enemies on the horizon and fortifying their pretend defenses.  This is imaginative play.  They are mentally imaging a scene constructed in their minds from the ruins and remains of bygone events and peoples.

Professionally trained and long-tenured scholars do the same thing every day (though perhaps less playfully).  To really understand the biblical text, one must try to taste the dirt and smell the smells, to feel the grit and hear the banter in the markets.  Fanciful work?  Yes, at times.  But the imagination can be a powerful ally aiding our retrospective investigations of the past.

Now, sometimes biblical scholarship gets imaginative in ways even my kids would deem irresponsible.  Like stretching the imagination to say that clearly the Jesus of the Gospels was no more than an impoverished cynic-wanderer who had some pithy things to say.  Like offering a multi-year account of the history of some community purportedly responsible for one of the Gospel texts (for which there is little by way of evidence, textual or material).

Sometimes our imaginations get the better of us, I suppose… even if we would never want to admit that we are doing something as “childish” as thinking imaginatively.

In spite of the fanciful mishaps, we need not disparage the imagination as a tool of our trade.   Running along Hadrian’s Wall with my kids and deflecting sailing “arrows” with my “shield” might be another element of my training as a PhD student.

Imagine that.

On NOT being a Minister

02 Sep Andrew Byers
September 2, 2012

It is Sunday morning, and I have no sermon to preach and no Bible Study to prepare.  I will attend church, but I will not be expected to serve Communion or set up mid-week pastoral appointments.  I have no mailbox to check in the church office.  I have nothing to print out, no copies to make.

I am a layperson.

By virtue of moving to England for the PhD, I find myself no longer working in the capacity of a minister.  Setting out on this new academic vocation is in no way a departure from ministry, in my view.  I have not chosen doctoral work because I wish to be unshackled from churchly annoyances and pastoral messes.  I delayed my entry into a PhD program by taking a 3-year pastoral post right at the time I was about to begin the same program in 2008.

But the reality is that I am not pastoring right now, for the first time in 9 years.

I had hoped to find a part-time ministry post here in England, but Durham’s Department of Theology reasonably expects its full-time students to be full-time students.  And no such post emerged when we were searching all last summer (though one did for my wife).

I have done quite a bit of preaching in my first year here in Durham, but I no longer bear the enormous pastoral burdens that have characterized my vocational life for most of the previous decade.

I miss it.  And yet I am so grateful for the break.

I realized several months into life here in England that I was viewing myself as a minister without a ministry post.  For the most part, I still consider myself a pastor.  So I have wondered—am I clinging to some occupational identity for the sake of feeling personally significant?  Or is “minister” who I am by virtue of divine call?  Either way, I cannot answer that awkward question, “What do you do?” with “I pastor or I minister.”  In this stage of my life, I study… and I do it full-time.

The weight of pastoral ministry can be absolutely crushing.  Another good descriptor is “suffocating.”  There are the painful burdens of parishioners one must bear.  There are the disillusioning secrets one discovers every week.  And uglier than these weights are the pressures one feels to grow the church, to expand the ministry, to increase the numbers.  These “ugly pressures” are the sort that we minister-types like to think we are above or immune to.  In every ministry post I have held, these “ugly pressures” have haunted every meeting, every sermon, every Bible study preparation.  I have hated them and fought tooth and nail to resist them and entrust the growth/size/numbers to God.  But they have always been there, whether within or without.  These pressures are unfortunate realities.

But not for me.  Not right now.

Today, my heaviest burdens are 1) the financial costs of tuition and life in the UK, 2) German, 3) Hebrew, 4) the secondary literature on John’s Gospel, 5) the work of writing a guild-worthy doctoral thesis, 6) the work of writing a theology of media.

Bearing the burden of someone’s disintegrating marriage seems much more noble than bearing the weight of memorizing German vocab or Hebrew verb paradigms.  But the struggle of many a theology student and seminarian is the struggle of faithfulness in small, tedious labors that can discipline us for weightier assignments.  By entering a doctoral program, I have determined that German vocab and Hebrew paradigms are non-negotiable for my vocational work as a minister.  As impractical as they seem to be at first glance, they open up new worlds for the minister of the Gospel—Hebrew more than German, but there are times when it would be nice to get into Barth or Thielicke or Bonhoeffer on their own linguistic grounds.

Will I “return” to ministry after the doctoral program?  Will I chose a professorship over a pastorate, a classroom over a chapel?

I have decided at this point to refuse bifurcating church and seminary and ministry from the discipline of theology.  The vocational fork up ahead of me between pastoring and teaching has loomed almost ominously, because I cannot envision serving in a church post that removes me from serious theological study, nor can I envision working as a professor in a way that compromises my work as a minister.  Assuming someone offers me a job in a couple of years, I will have to choose.

But I am blurring the vocational lines on purpose.

For now, I have an excellent opportunity to learn to be a devoted layperson.  I have the unique privilege of serving the church as a minister without an official title.  Pastoring has helped me learn so much about lay ministry.  Ministers know well how church members can strengthen the church’s ministry  through their volunteer devotions.  Now, I am going to let lay ministry teach me how to better serve as a pastor.  Because sometimes, the folks in the pews are the most erudite professors for that lonely, disgruntled person in the pulpit.



PhD, 1-yr Review: What I do when I clock in…

24 Aug Andrew Byers
August 24, 2012


Now that I have written about the spiritual and existential crises of living in the UK as a PhD student with a wife and four kids, I am turning my attention to the sort of work I am up to.

There is the possibility that what follows might dull you….


My greatest academic insecurities are linguistic.  Hebrew and German, particularly.

It is obvious why Hebrew would be important.  Less so German.  Competency in the biblical languages (Greek and Hebrew) is like competency in market trends for the stockbroker, in biology for the doctor, in hammering for the carpenter.  My Greek has been steadily improving since I had to face Joel Marcus everyday at Duke some years back, asking me to read portions of Mark’s Gospel in Greek aloud in class (when he was finishing up a commentary on the Gospel of Mark), then asking grammatical questions after I translated (“what use of the subjunctive is this?”  “Why is that participle in the genitive?”

A New Testament scholar has to be proficient in the Old Testament, too, which requires Hebrew.  And since the NT writers worked primarily with the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), there is much more Greek to learn than what one finds between Matthew and Revelation.

On a “normal” day, I try to devote an hour and a half to studying a Hebrew textbook after reading portions of the NT in Greek.

As for German….  Well, biblical studies is an international discipline, of course, and the classic understanding of a scholar is that she is multilingual, at least when it comes to reading.  Tomes and tomes of theological work has been produced out of Deutschland.  And new articles come out everyday by German scholars.  So reading competence is essential, not only for keeping abreast of what is going on in one’s field, but for drawing from the vast history of research in biblical studies, much of which has been done in places like Tübingen, Heidelberg, Marburg, and Göttingen.

My German has improved since I came to Durham, but the vocabulary is so vast that I can hardly make it through a sentence without having to look up at least a few words. I rarely use a German grammar.  Mainly I am just reading and translating, reading and translating, pushing, shoving, plowing through the syntax and vocab.


Primary Lit

“Primary literature” in NT research refers to the actual texts from the Greco-Roman world that inform the discipline.  This includes the enormous body of literature produce out of Early Judaism.  It includes the vast writings of the Jewish historian Josephus and the Jewish philosopher Philo (both rough contemporaries of the Christian church’s initial generation).  My focus this year has been on the Apostolic Fathers, the earliest texts written by Christians just after the New Testament documents were penned.  Though he is writing a few hundred years later, I am currently reading Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History—this work is probably our best access to early Christianity, even if Eusebius himself cannot be regarded as the best theologian or the best historian.


Secondary Lit

“Secondary literature” refers to the scholarly writings produced in recent decades/centuries in one’s academic field.  I am working in John’s Gospel, and Johannine studies is notorious for its massive corpus of secondary lit.  There is just so, so much to read.  So much.  I have concentrated on literary and theological approaches to John, as well as those works which take an interest in Johannine ecclesiology (which is my topic of focus).



Then there is the discipline of writing.  The British PhD is all about writing a top-notch “thesis.”  There are no other metrics—no grades, no language exams, no competency tests.  Just the thesis.  And it had better be good.  At the end of a workday, the doctoral student over here in the UK checks her word count.  We need words on those Word documents staring from the screen.

At the beginning of each term I know what I have to produce in terms of writing.  So I begin the term devoting the 1st half of the day to language work, then the afternoons to reading, reading, reading.  But about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way into the term, the demand to have something written enforces a new routine.  So I end up spending almost every hour of the day in writing mode, but this might mean that I get a paragraph in.  And only a paragraph.  Because as I write I normally have to re-read a lot of what I have worked through in the 1st part of the term, as well as read lots more.  To write in interaction with other scholars requires such precision.  I have had to read chapters or articles by Bultmann and Käsemann over and over.


Supervision and the NT Seminar

I meet fairly often with my supervisor.  Those discussions have been milepost-moments.  The rudder gets tweaked, the arguments get tested, new ideas are suggested, oversized aspirations are cut down, undervalued points are elevated.  I also attend a weekly seminar where other postgrads meet with the NT faculty around a paper presentation and discussion.


I absolutely love what I am doing.  But my mind is stretched and yanked and exercised every day. Next, I will be writing on my reading of the Bible—how is it different reading Scripture as a NT PhD student as opposed to a pastor?  And how do I read in general—skimming, scanning, long-form, or in disrupted piecemeal?  I can’t think of much else one would be eager to read about than my reading habits….





1-Year into the PhD: 12 Months of Living Squeamishly

20 Aug Andrew Byers
August 20, 2012
[The map above is an inset in a map of "The Bishopric and Citie of Durham"—the inset shows the peninsula where I study, between the castle and cathedral.  You can find more of these at]
“Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with Annotations – 1841-1844
A friend of mine sent me that quote.  To be clear, though I certainly respect Emerson, I would not invest in him an authority by which I would live my own life.  But the timing of my friend sending me that quote seemed providential.
Looking back on this past year, I am disappointed that I was miserably squeamish throughout so much of it.  Here I am living in one of the most beautiful little cities in the United Kingdom, studying everyday within 25 yards of a 900-year old cathedral, watching my kids as they fend off corrupt knights from Sherwood Forest and resist Viking invaders, and, on top of all that, I have actually, finally, commenced in doctoral work on the New Testament—something I have been tentatively hoping in for more than a decade now, something I have sensed a divine appointment to pursue.
To boot, Durham’s Department of Theology is outstanding.  I admit bias, but Durham is fairly well recognized as the best place to study theology in the UK.  And I could not be more pleased with the learning, wisdom, perspective, and guidance of my supervisor (Prof. Francis Watson).
My squeamishness is due to the costs, of course… and not just the price tag of tuition and UK living expenses.
Along with the squeamishness, there has been a debilitating, overpowering sense of shameShame over the impracticality of moving a family overseas for an expensive doctoral program with no funding.  Shame for not drawing an income.  Shame that my wife was working so hard to help offset the debt just a bit.  She was gone 2-5 nights a week (usually 3 or 4).  That’s a really tall order for a mom with 4 kids with a full-time PhD student as a husband.  We LOVE, just love her place of employment (our church here in town) as well as the folks she works with.  But we are not at a life-stage for the sort of schedule required of a youth and children’s ministry worker.  Though our marriage is strong—the bonds of our friendship, to God’s praise, are so tough and enduring and joyful—it was hard to live a year passing each other by, sometimes literally on the streets as we met on the road here or there to exchange kids or a car or something.  It has been a maddening year in terms of scheduling.
Hence the squeamishness.  And the shame.  Strange how you can pray and pray and pray over a span of years for clarity, make some really costly decisions as an act of devotion to Christ—decisions that you would feel ashamed for NOT making—only to endure an awful season ashamed that you did make them… yet feeling simultaneously that you did the right thing.
(If any professional counselors are reading this, they may have already diagnosed me with some psychosis endemic to my personality type: ‘squeamishness disorder,’ maybe, or something like that).
I am not sure how to reconcile all this, to be honest.  Seems as though there are two people for me to be angry at and lay the blame for being so cornered on one end by a powerful sense of divine calling and on the other end an implacable obstacle providence has yet to remove.  The parties to blame seem to be either me or God.  Me for being a fool and mishearing God.  God for… well, for not doing something right.  Because something is just not right… at least according to the figures.  And so when those are the options for directing one’s disappointment and frustration, I try to default to myself.  Hence again, squeamishness and shame.
I’ve counseled so many dear folks who were at vocational crossroads wondering how to place the next foot forward.  I seem to have lived in those crossroads for quite some time now.  What I guess I am finding is that the hardest part of following the vague voice of Christ up ahead in the fog is not deciding which way to go, but being content in the path you’ve so painstakingly chosen.
My wife has left her job (and on good terms).  We are so relieved.  And I do get a small stipend for my writing on a website here in the UK devoted to increasing biblical literacy in the digital age.  Actually, I am working so many hours, mornings, days, nights, but mostly for stuff that just happens to not come with a salary (writing a second book, trying to get my mind around German and Hebrew, trying to write a thesis on Johannine ecclesiology).
Student loans are an inevitable part of academic life for most of us slogging down this path.  And there are all sorts of policies embedded in the repayment process that make them manageable.  Still, they are emotionally and spiritually indigestible for me.  Yeah, they make me squeamish.  And ashamed.
All this to say that I need to repent.  Not by leaving Durham—everything besides the funding issue has been so powerfully affirming that we are in the right place at the right time.  I need to repent of my attitude.  I think I have been practicing “faith” like one make moves in a card game.  I’ll lay this down… now God, you lay your card down.  There is a sort of cat and mouse strategy at work in the way I trust the Lord.
But you can’t play God, can you?  So I am going to try to believe in the Gospel, the Gospel I am devoted to studying and paying so dearly to do so.  Far be it from me to think that the Crucified doesn’t know what to do with my debts….
Of course, many a fool has chased some dumb dream and slapped the word “vocation” on it in Jesus’ name.  That has been my greatest fear, I think.  “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Prov 14:12).
Even so, I can’t live in that sort of anxiety any longer.  My constitution just won’t take it.  And it certainly doesn’t honor the Lord.  Sometimes, you drain your cup to its dregs, even if you are not sure if it is the right cup.  The Lord knows I am a blind fool, and He also knows I have begged and wept for Him to take my feeble hand in His.  As far as I can tell, the right cup is in hand.  The other  hand is on a plowshare.  And He had strong words to say something about putting one’s hand on such an implement (Lk 9:62).   So I am gripping tighter.  Tighter.
Here comes year 2.

Our Life in England and the PhD: Year One

12 Aug Andrew Byers
August 12, 2012

The 8th of August, 2011.  I will not forget that date.  After ten years of wondering, thinking, praying and making plans for a UK PhD program, that was the day of departure.  That was the day when my wife and I—via a family-led carpool, three planes, a double-decker bus, a southbound train out of Scotland, and a caravan of awaiting friends—brought our four kids to Durham, England… along with 19 pieces of luggage.

I keep a journal.  But I have yet to darken those pages with ink about that final week in the States, save one brief entry scratched out on August 5th while in a surgical waiting room.  My wife was having a cancerous patch removed from the bridge of her nose.  Even on that Friday morning before the Monday of departure, I was unsure if we were really going to leave.

We had been trying to sell our house.  For months.  Every weekend and many weekday nights had been devoted to remodeling—installing windows, patio doors, repairing miscellanies, painting, etc., etc., etc.  Miranda was working three nights a week as a server at The Cheesecake Factory.  Our lives were ratcheted so tight with the stress of an impending series of one-way flights with no resolution to our house and with plenty of friends and family to bid a hard farewell to… assuming some miracle came through with the house and we could actually board those flights.

It was not joyless.  I was quite miserable in spirit throughout much of this pre-departure season.  But in spite of the pressurized situation, there was a sense of joy that surfaced from time to time.  Even so, the disillusionment was very painful.  All those years praying about this vocational path of doctoral work, all the waiting, all the willingness to give it up—it all came down to a few weeks away when nothing, NOTHING, seemed to be coming through circumstantially for us to board that first plane.

I remember providing for my good friends Chuck Hooten and Kyle Bailey a litany of all the impossible factors arrayed against me, factors that God seemed quite content leave untouched by providence.  Both gave memorable responses.  The one bit of good news I shared was that my kids seemed to be handling the upcoming move well.  Kyle kindly (but gravely) warned me not to spread my anxiety to them—it is quite contagious.  Chuck told me, “Well, you did just write a book on disillusionment with God—you shoulda seen this comin’!”  it was the wisdom and levity I needed that morning.

One of the toughest days had been a couple of months earlier when a friend passionately explained how I was destroying my family’s future by taking such a costly course—without outside funding (which I lack), a theology degree in the UK costs well into the six-figure mark.  At the moment of this conversation, my job—a great job, a dream job, a job I had come to love—was being offered to a close friend (fellow blogger, Joel Busby, to be exact!).  He had been my pick for the post.  But though I did not tell many people this, I started looking for another ministry job in Birmingham—I was just so scared.

Another dark day came when we were about to leave for a mini-vacation of sorts at the home of a family member.  After all the madness, all the rush, we finally had a chance for a brief respite in July.  After my wife cleaned the house immaculately (so it could be “show-ready” for any realtors), and after I had loaded up the car, we got the kids’ passports in the mail.  I drove back up the driveway to spend the hours needed applying to the UK visas for my kids.  Passports + Visas for a family of 6 = over $4k.  I had no idea the British government would charge the same for kids as they charged for adults.  Weeks later, I was a bit annoyed when I stood before the Immigration desk at Edinburgh’s airport… though the officer could not have been kinder. That day was also when I got the news from the publisher that my book was not selling very well at all.  So much for daydreaming of income from writing.

And then, just under 3 weeks from before departure, some friends graciously and surprisingly began slipping envelopes into our hands.  Envelopes holding funds that we simply did not have, funds that enabled us to get through the first month of settling in before the loans kicked in.  And a prospective home-buyer offered to lease our house.  And folks showed up to help us move. And the visas actually arrived (there was a real risk they would not, and new immigration laws forbade our entry until weeks after our pre-booked departure date… all this to say the story is much thicker than presented here).

On moving day, while MBCC pastors (thanks, guys… really) heaved our stuff in the worst heat index of the summer into a moving truck that had to be hauled down my steep driveway and unloaded into yet another moving truck, we got a call from the dermatologist that the little spot Miranda casually went in to get checked was actually cancer.  We had about 4 minutes together to take in the news.  And then we had to get back to packing and loading.  The next day I drove that 26 foot Penske from Birmingham to Atlanta where we unloaded it, storing the stuff in my mother-in-law’s basement.  Walter Arroyo drove Miranda and I back home. We were squashed of all strength, just emotionally, physically—and most certainly spiritually—spent.  Miranda had surgery the next day.  Walter and Janet Lamar cleaned our house.  Kyle finished up the last minute remodeling touches.  Providence through community.

A few days later we were in the airport, telling Miranda’s mom and dad goodbye.  It was all so last-minute that we were cancelling utilities and insurance and what-not during the drive to Camp Creek Pkwy and even at the boarding gate.

8th of August, 2011.

And now it has been a year.  It got harder, not easier, after we arrived.  But now that the dust of 2011′s summer and the previous year in the UK is beginning to settle, I am going to be reflecting on what we are doing and how we are doing in a handful of blog posts.  I can say this: the kids are still doing great.  And this: I think that maybe I am actually doing the right thing, kind of, sort of, by being here, by working on this ridiculously expensive doctorate.  And this: my wife is the best person I have ever known and will ever know.  And, finally, this: God dwells in thick darkness… but He is good.

Checking back in with Jason Byassee (pt. 1): Theology, Writing, Social Media & the Local Church

30 Jul Andrew Byers
July 30, 2012

For our series on “Loving the Church” in all its grit, grime and glory, we had some exchanges with Jason Byassee.  Before accepting an appointment as Senior Minister at Boone United Methodist Church (North Carolina), Jason worked at Duke Divinity School, heading up their Center for Theology, Writing and Media.  Since a lot of our posts here at Hopeful Realism have prodded and poked around with the idea of the pastor-scholar or pastor-theologian (most recently, see here and here), we were intrigued with the news of the job shift—it is not everyday that someone leaves a coveted academic post at a prestigious university for the pastoral trials of the parish.  We interviewed Jason last year (click here) in what turned out to be one of my top five favorite posts of 2011.  We thought it would be fun and helpful to check in and find out how plying the fused craft of theology/writing/ministry was faring….


Writing and Reading as a Pastor

HR: How have the past several months as a pastor shaped your writing?  Any change in style, content, length… or changes in topics of focus? 

I certainly have a less romantic view of the parish! The small church cured me of that in one way (I wrote about this in The Gifts of the Small Church), but a largish church (1400 members, 700 on Sunday) cures in another way. There are more critics. There are also more selfless servants. And those are often the same people! Sunday is more of a performance, and that’s not a bad thing. We can do more in mission. We’re also a tall steeple in a town that’s still Christendom enough that being a visible member can help you advance in your career. Odd—but there’s nothing to be done about that other than to receive it as a gift. We’re in a university town with an entrepreneurial spirit. Those are all gifts, all potentially dangerous, potentially sources of grace.

I’m struck by how much of my job is leading staff. I have no idea how to do that other than not to do what supervisors I’ve had did that I disliked. Of course merely avoiding things is no way positively to lead. I find myself faking it far more often than I’m comfortable with. But lots of senior pastors tell me they’re doing the same.

I find my view of theological education growing. Smart people are right to demand sophisticated intellectual engagement that respects and takes them seriously. But academia often serves up inside baseball debates when it thinks it’s being intellectual. Who has the patience for that outside the guild? Folks want preaching that engages their life with the treasures of the church and harsh realities of the world and takes their minds seriously. Some sui generis geniuses can do that, but that’s not most of us.

I’m sure all that’s shaped my writing some. It comes in smaller bursts of time, certainly. To be honest I know what I’m doing when I write but not when I’m leading, so writing can be an escape in the negative sense for me.


HR: How has serving as a pastor expanded (or constricted) your reading and studying? 

I find I read more fiction. I’m not sure why exactly. I wish I had a theory that I found narrative helpful in reading scripture or reading the congregation or working with words but it might just be fun. I certainly read more commentaries and sermons. When I get ready to preach I see if I have a sermon on a text and am sure to read it. If I’m being extra diligent I’ll read commentary on it, but not always. Modern commentary always feels the need to act more clever than anything that came before, so I get annoyed and distracted by that.

I also read things parishioners give me. Not email forwards usually, but books, and I try to work what I learn there into sermons. I both want to show them we can discover things together and I want genuinely to know what they’re reading and thinking about.


HR: How does your process of sermon-writing differ from the research and writing you have done for more academic purposes?

More is at stake. A sermon declares the word of God in a specific time and place, a word that judges and saves, contradicts and makes whole. Academic work also has its place in God’s purposes, but less is up for grabs. It’s second-order discourse (borrowing from Robert Jenson here): it offers reflection on scripture or church at a remove, potentially correcting or encouraging things being said in first-order discourse like sermon or church teaching. But if an academic piece gets things wrong, who cares?

That said, ideas do have legs. Terrible theologies of suffering or salvation or politics get disseminated from a variety of sources and can do harm. I’m also aware of my own post-liberal training more than I have been. The temptation is to try to turn people into liberals before they can be turned into post-liberals! Of course there’s no credit for doing that. The better goal is to approach Jesus together and see how we’re changed for having done so.

It certainly matters who I imagine will be listening on Sundays. I often find myself thinking how specific people will hear things. I hope that’s not selling out on the gospel—I believe it’s not, but it seems unavoidable anyway.
HR: You have devoted considerable amounts of time and energy to studying Patristic exegesis.  Do the approaches of those early writers on Scripture give shape to your own exegetical practices as a pastor?

They must, but I’m not sure how. Augustine is rigorously textual in his preaching. Graham Ward calls this a “letteral” sense—Augustine’s paying exacting attention to the letter, but not doing what we moderns think of as “literal” reading. Scripture has a fulsome sense, it includes history and letter and language, all that is remote. Yet it’s also brought near us in Christ, as he leads us in discipleship now. The fathers know this: that the bible is both far away and unbearably near. Monica is a good image for Augustine’s preaching. She’s uneducated but fiercely intelligent, pious and superstitious in one way, in another dramatically dedicated to Jesus in ways that affected generations. My parishioners are far more educated than Monica in a formal sense but not in theology—otherwise it’s a perfect bullseye.


Media as a Pastor
As a Research Fellow with the New Media Project, I know that you spend a lot of time thinking about media.  How are social media incorporated in your pastoral ministry?

Not near as well as they should be, but better than they were when I arrived. We had a 90’s era flash presentation on site that just screamed “dated.” Now we have a pretty nice looking site, put together by a lay staffer and good consultant. We have a Facebook presence where we had none before. We’re not using it very well yet. I’m struck anew by how difficult it is to connect to people in social media as an institution. They work so much better for individuals. I’ve got 2500 Facebook friends; something like 160 people “like” Boone UMC. So we’re trying to ask people what I ought to preach on etc. But it’s slow.

Personally I find it much easier to connect to people via text message or Facebook than it ever was with the tools around when I was last in the parish—phone and email. I like praying on people’s Facebook wall on their birthdays. Social media is a great way to connect with first-time visitors. All that is borrowed from folks we studied in the New Media Project. I like Tony Lee’s language—pastor of Cathedral of Hope AME in DC. He says new media increases his “pastoral touches.” Sure enough—folks I’d never connect with in person, who don’t elbow their way through the greeting line to get in the pastor’s attention—I can connect with really well digitally. It only works if face-to-face and social media work integrally.

But I don’t claim to have this figured out at Boone UMC in the slightest.


[Part 2 of the interview will be up in a couple of days on " The Rift between Church and Academy and the Pastor Theologian".... ]

Here are Jason’s books if any of you are interested—








Responding to Gerald Heistand on the “Ecclesial Theologian”

14 May Andy
May 14, 2012

I have been writing on the vocational idea of the “pastor-theologian.”  The recent series of posts was inspired by Doug Sweeney’s article at the Gospel Coalition, whose “call and agenda” should be received with both excitement and urgency.

Related to these thoughts, I recommend this post by Mark Stevens who is studying Eugene Peterson’s model of a “pastoral theologian.”  Also, here is an interview co-blogger Joel Busby and I did with Jason Byassee on “the tension between the hyphen of pastor-theologian” when we heard he was leaving Duke Divinity School to serve as a Methodist pastor in Boone, NC.  That interview is easily one of my top five favorite posts here at Hopeful Realism.

Changing the Blog’s Tagline

In the midst of my recent writing, thinking, and praying about the pastor-theologian model, I realized I needed to change the tagline of my blog.  The current one above is a temporary replacement of the previous, “Writing and Thinking as Cynic-Saints and Pastor-Theologians.”  I just felt so pretentious identifying myself with the latter (a presumption which I wrestled with openly in the “About the Blog” page).   Currently, I serve in no ministerial post, so “pastor” is not appropriate for the moment.  And as a PhD candidate, I am realizing more and more how unworthy of the title “theologian” I am!

Hence, the new tag line.  A benefit to the medium of a blog is its changeability, right?

Interacting with Gerald with SAET

Another benefit is the opportunity for discussion.

I was so pleased that Gerald Heistand (Exec Director of SAET and Senior Associate Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, IL) read and replied to the last post.  I felt that his comments and the reply I started to submit were worthy of a post to themselves.  Gerald rightfully reaffirms his idea of an “ecclesial theologian” (see his paper here for more), and responding to him gives me a chance to let readers know of my motivations in HOW I have been writing on the “pastor-theologian” model.  I confess: there has been a strategy underway… but I hope a helpful one.



Appreciate the post and the interaction with my essay. I agree with everything you’ve written here, and think you’ve done a very good job of articulating the worth and value of the “local” theologian. And further, I think the local theologian may indeed be more important than the ecclesial theologian, for the immediate health of the church.

My only point (and I think its an important one) is that we’ll not ever really be able to reposition the pastorate as a theological vocation, and thus raise up a generation of local theologians, until we reestablish the ecclesial theologian as a viable vision of the pastor. The reason even local theologians tend to be in short supply is because we consistently send our (writing) theologians into the academy, thus perpetuating the notion that the pastorate is atheological. We can’t consistently and chronically send all of our future (writing) theologians into the academy, in many cases telling them NOT to go into the church, and somehow think that the pastorate will be conceived of as a theological vocation.

So I think we’re shooting at the same target, but maybe have slightly different routes for getting there. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on this…



Gerald!  Thanks so much for the reply.  And yes, I think we are both shooting for the same target.  I have been strategically approaching the issue by intentionally trying to think of the pastor-theologian model from a varying range of angles, specifically from perspectives that would view that vocational calling as threatening (in the case of churches who may have legitimate—or even illegitimate!—suspicions toward the academy) or as disparaging (in the case of fine pastors I know who feel repeatedly belittled by higher brow intellectuals while they conduct their labors in the daily grind).  I am trying to craft my public thoughts on the pastor-theologian “from below,” I guess, in hopes of somehow increasing the receptivity (and sharpening the perception) of the pastor-theologian model.

You are right that I have been posting mainly on the pastor-theologian as a “local theologian” (to use your helpful term).  But I fully endorse your call for an “ecclesial theologian” who writes and produces the highest quality of scholarship for the wider church from the social location of the local church.  Absolutely and amen.  What you all are doing with SAET has helped broaden my own vocational imagination.  Those of us who sense a call to ministry along with a call to academic work see an inevitable fork in the road between those two institutional/social settings of church and academy.  You are helping us recognize that we bear some responsibility for making that fork less divergent than it currently is!  Bravo.

As you suggest, many doctoral students (like myself, of course) must indeed consider with great care your model of the ecclesial theologian, which will hopefully help us reconceive the pastorate as a setting for intense theological work.  It may well be divine providence that an increased degree of interest in rigorous theological study is coinciding with a situation in which the number of academic posts out there has constricted!

With thanks,


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